Jason Welty’s DJJ departure leaves juvenile-detention cost debate up in air

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Jason Welty became a casualty of the dispute between the state of Florida and counties over juvenile-detention costs when he abruptly resigned late last week,

Welty’s departure leaves many counties wondering what will happen next in the high-stakes debate.

Welty resigned abruptly on Wednesday as chief of staff of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, only two days after telling The News Service of Florida that Gov. Rick Scott wants counties to pay for the detention of certain offenders.

“It’s going to take the Legislature to resolve whether or not the counties pay for new law violations or not,” Welty said on July 7. “We believe that they should be. The governor believes that they should be. And we believe that the Legislature believes that they should be. But (the counties) obviously don’t.”

The governor’s office quickly responded to Welty’s statement once the story broke, writes reporter Margie Menzel. Frank Collins, Scott’s communications director, released a statement saying Welty’s opinion did not reflect the governor’s position.

Welty, with 10 years of state government experience, did not give a reason for his resignation, which he made through a letter submitted to Interim department Secretary Christy Daly.

“We appreciate Jason’s service to the agency,” said Heather DiGiacomo, department communications director. “Fred Schuknecht is currently serving as interim chief of staff.”

Welty’s highlights the renewed legal fight between the state agency and counties about division of juvenile-detention costs.

At issue is a 2004 law requiring counties to pay certain costs to detain juveniles waiting for resolution of cases in court. Florida pays for costs after the decided cases — known as “post-disposition” costs. However, under debate is what are “pre-” and “post-disposition.”

As an example, one argument is who pay for detaining youths with resolved cases but have committed new offenses while on probation that violate terms of probation — circumstances of “new law violations” cited by Welty last week.

The First District Court of Appeal upheld the ruling of an administrative law judge in June 2013, finding that the Department of Juvenile Justice shifted more responsibility for costs to counties allowed by the law: 75 percent for counties, 25 percent for the state agency.

The dispute soon moved to the Legislature in 2014, with a measure mandating a 50-50 split, which died on the final day of the session. Both sides agreed upon equal divisions of costs, but counties held out for an additional $140 million they believed was overpaid to the state. The Senate refused.

After the bill’s failure, the state opted for a formula where counties pay 57 percent of the cost of juvenile-detention, while the state paid the remaining 43 percent. There was a department rule hearing with counties on June 6, ending in an impasse. Counties returned to the Division of Administrative hearings, winning two legal battles on the payment issue.

As for the consequences of Welty’s resignation, many question how his exit will shape the future of the cost-sharing issue.

Florida Association of Counties representative Cragin Mosteller told Menzel that the group “appreciated Mr. Welty’s open lines of communication and hope to have the same going forward.

“FAC hopes to work with the governor and the department to find a solution to DJJ’s unfair and incorrect billing so that we can put our full attention to the children who so desperately need our help.”

Advocacy group Children’s Campaign president Roy Miller called Welty “a thoughtful worker on behalf of children needing a better direction in life.”

“Welty is known by stakeholders for being trusted for what he says and does,” Miller added. “The fight between the state and counties over detention costs has led to very bad outcomes for children, and it’s long past time to bring an end to it. Welty did his best to listen to all sides and report it accurately and without bias.”

DiGiacomo wrote, in an email that the “agency has had a collaborative relationship with the counties and we are committed to maintaining open lines of communication.”

Although Scott’s office last week reacted to Welty’s comments, they have not publicly offered a detailed position for settling the dispute with counties.

“The 21 cost-shared juvenile centers across Florida work to ensure that Florida’s children and families are kept safe until legal proceedings can take place.” said Scott spokesman John Tupps in a statement to the News Service. “After a careful review of the district court ruling this past year, the Department of Juvenile Justice worked to develop an adjusted county cost share.

“The Legislature adopted the DJJ’s recommendation which results in a reduction in costs to the counties. We’re open to working with the counties to find a path forward that will benefit Florida’s children and families.”

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.